A peek at the future of enterprise IT

It used to be that when agency CIOs wanted a preview of the new technology that would eventually reshape their organizations and define their offices' to-do lists, they would attend one of the big computer-maker or enterprise network conferences. That’s where the action was, for enterprise computing anyway.

Not so much anymore. Now the best place to get that look into the future is the annual International Consumer Electronics Show, like the one that recently wrapped up in Las Vegas. Sure, CES still has all the latest TV sets (3D!), stereo speakers, desktop computers and home entertainment gadgets on display. But this year the spotlight was on the new tablet computers and souped-up smart phones that are redefining personal computing and, like it or not, enterprise computing as well.

Don’t underestimate the significance of these powerful portable computers and the wireless networks that will connect them. It is the start of the infrastructure buildout for the next major phase of the information revolution. Many expect it will be the most profound and far-reaching change yet.

For starters, from an enterprise IT perspective, this buildout will be unlike ones of the past that were strictly under the command and control of IT departments.

“It’s an enormous change,” writes Jessica Davis at Channel Insider, a media site for sellers of enterprise IT products and services. “The buying dollars for client machines have shifted from IT or the [chief financial officer] to the whim of the individual user — a consumer. Just as the industry’s biggest U.S. trade show has shifted from one that catered to 'Computer Dealers' to one that caters to 'Consumer Electronics.'"

That’s a reference to the old Computer Dealer's Exhibition, or Comdex, which used to be the largest and most important industry event but is now gone.

So what are the amazing consumer machines that agency CIOs should be preparing for? Here are the highlights from CES 2011.

Rise of the tablets

Apple’s iPad got the ball rolling in 2010, but all the other tablets were making the news at this year’s CES — and for good reason. Vendors introduced or previewed more than 75 tablet computers at the show.

As government CIOs ponder the role tablet PCs will play in their enterprises, those ruminations will take much more solid form as the tablet market diversifies and matures.

Tim Gideon of PC Magazine and others singled out Research in Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet for special notice. The PlayBook will have several enterprise-friendly features when it ships in the next few months, including a dual-core processor for running multiple applications at the same time and the ability to tether it to a security-enhanced BlackBerry smart phone for shuttling work to the tablet’s much bigger screen.

The downside is that the PlayBook runs a RIM-only operating system, which means that it might have trouble attracting developers to write the useful and abundant applications that have helped ensure the iPad's popularity.

Application choices aren’t expected to be a problem with tablets and smart phones based on Google’s Android mobile operating system. Android phones have been selling like hotcakes, attracting legions of developers and giving Apple’s iPhone a run for its money.

Tablet manufacturers are poised to start shipping devices based on Android 3.0 — a.k.a. Honeycomb — which is designed specifically for tablet computers. Motorola’s Xoom tablet will be the first to run the new operating system, with many others close behind.

Smarter phones

CES also hosted a number of “super phone” debuts. These smart phones sport processors powerful enough to put them in the desktop-replacement neighborhood. Jason Hiner of ZDNet called Motorola’s Android-powered Atrix a “landmark product that is likely to spawn lots of copycats and a shift in computing that could be even more significant than the current shift that’s happening with tablets.”

Atrix’s best trick is a piece of Webtop software that allows it to function like a full PC when connected to a keyboard and large screen. Like many of the devices debuting at CES 2011, Atrix is not without flaws and shortcomings, but those devices are the surest illustrations of the next chapter in computing.

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